Phone Call with My Daughter by Lee Ji-myeong

  • onFebruary 16, 2015
  • Vol.26 Winter 2014
  • byLee Ji-myeong

I was born in North Korea and lived there for 52 years. It has now been 10 years since I left, long enough, one might assume, to miss and pine for my native land. But I feel nothing to this effect at all. If there’s anything that I do feel, it is hate, anger, and despair. I once had a family there, although we were poor, and 52 years’ worth of bittersweet memories. What happened, then? Perhaps it is because now I feel that I have no identity, no soul. Maybe my identity will return when my broken country is whole again, but now that seems very far away.


One day in October last year, I spoke with my daughter in North Korea over the phone for the first time in years. Using my contacts, I was able to summon her to the Chinese border from her married home in Cholsan County in North Pyongan Province. My daughter had never responded to any of my attempts to reach her before, but for some reason that day she had decided to come. The border is a maximum security zone under constant radio surveillance, and to speak for too long would be to endanger my daughter’s life. So I said hello and was trying to control my tears, knowing we had only two minutes, when I had to catch my breath at my daughter’s next words.

“Why won’t you leave me alone? I have no father. Don’t contact me again.”

“Daughter,” I cried out, afraid she would hang up. Fortunately she did not.

“Is that the first thing to say to your father after nine years? I didn’t raise you to be so cold.”

“Sure. You always said that a person should think of their country first, and to never waver in their loyalty to the Party and the Great Leader, no matter how hard the conditions. That was what you wrote in your work, too. But then you were the one who betrayed your country first. Didn’t you even think what would happen to your family here when you left? I’m hanging up. I don’t even want to talk to you.”

The signal was gone. When I called the number again, the line on the other side was turned off. I had never felt such despair in my life as I did then. My daughter had rejected me. My only daughter. She was my world, the light of my life—and the first time we spoke in nine years, she disinherited me over the phone. My world crashed down before my eyes. I must have looked like the unhappiest father in the world as I staggered outside in the wind. I walked along the Han River for a long time.

The shameful details of my life swim in front of my eyes and drift down the flowing river. It was the only world I knew, a life of which any sort of ownership or claim as an individual was renounced. And only by leaving the country did I learn what a wretched life that was for any person to be born into. If I had been the only person to live such a life, I would not have had half the regrets I have now. But unfortunately I worked hard to produce such works as the Party demanded. When I was glorifying the wisdom and grace of the Great Leader with unabashed loyalty, I had no thought to the regrets that haunt me now. Or rather, I had no thoughts at all. That was the only way I could have existed. Life under the state doctrine of Juche meant to serve the Party and the Great Leader, to bring joy and satisfaction to them. The works I wrote under this principle were nothing but tools to brainwash not just myself, but countless others. I, the selfsame writer that preached total sacrifice towards the Party and the Great Leader, had become a traitor the day I decided to throw everything away. I, who told my readers to live and die for the Great Leader, had been the first to flee the country, betraying them all. My daughter was one of my readers. And so I have no right to mourn over her refusal to see me again. 


by Lee Ji-myeong
Writer and Vice President of the North Korean Writers in Exile PEN Center